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Today I shall wax a bit philosophical. As in, "if a tree falls in the forest and no one is around to hear it, does it make a sound?" Or, if you're into horticulture, "What's in a name?" and that whole business about roses smelling as sweet.
Here's one you might not be as familiar with: If everyone - with almost no exception - is engaged in what is ostensibly illegal activity by willy-nilly downloading of digital files of copyrighted material, like movies and music, does said activity somehow become legal?
And what if the people running the biggest and most comprehensive search engine in the world provide a tool that allows the average Web surfer to search the "deep" Internet, gathering up such digital files found on servers all over the world, with no limits? Does such activity then receive the sanction of law?
Hey, don't ask me - I'm no philosopher - but one would imagine the folks at Google have considered this question, and come to the appropriate conclusion. And, clearly, things are not as black and white as many of us seem to believe they are in the area of file sharing.
That impression gets a real boost after you download, install and use a program called Google Hacks (http://code.google.com/p/googlehacks/), part of the Google Code project (http://code.google.com), in which enterprising programmers use various Google tools, APIs and other search engine features to build applications, products or Web-based features that perform specific tasks. The Code projects span the gamut of Google's abilities, with many of them utilizing APIs like Google Maps or Google Earth to build projects like, for example, the ever-popular Remember the Milk! (http://www.rememberthemilk.com) site and application (now available off-line, as well), which will send a reminder message via any communication method you prefer - e-mail, IM or even cell phone - and keep nudging you until your errand gets done.
Google Hacks, as mentioned, is extremely easy to use. You type in a string - say, "Beatles" - pick a category - like "music" - and press on the search button. A new Google window opens in your browser with the results of a "deep" Web search using Google's advanced search tools like cache, allinurl, related etc. (http://tinyurl.com/2r5lys). I have to say I was astounded at the amount of material I was able to find for my searches in all the categories - video, books, applications, fonts and several others.
Sounds downright illegal, doesn't it? But hold on: All Google Hacks does is "package" Google's advanced search capabilities in a convenient application. It should be noted that Google Code projects are authored by independent programmers who are not necessarily affiliated with Google, and the site makes this very clear. So, even if it were to pose a legal issue, you can't really say that Google is behind Google Hacks - it's the brainstorm of two programmers who put together a very easy to use tool that takes advantage of the more esoteric, and powerful, Google search commands.
But even that modicum of "guilt by association" doesn't wash, even if you were to take the position that file sharing is illegal. If you're going to have search engines, you want them to work properly, and find the information you're seeking in a matter of seconds. And you can't expect Google to supervise what people keep in public view on their servers. Google's tools are just that - tools, to be used, not ab-used.
It isn't fair to make the company responsible for abuse of its tools. And if Google is sponsoring an open call for code based on their technology, you can't expect them to ban an application based on the strengths of their search engine! Interestingly, one of the program's authors writes on the Google Hacks home page that he hopes his program "will help crack down on illegal and illegally distributed copyrighted material." And the program itself very clear states that it is "for educational purposes only." I believe him.
Interestingly, however, he has reproduced an article I've seen on a number of Web sites (I don't know who came up with it first) that describes how to use a very common Firefox extension to trick a site into believing that you're a "Google bot" - one of the Web crawlers that checks sites for updates and adjusts the Google search database (http://tinyurl.com/2sa6kk).
As I mentioned, Google would seem to be on safe legal ground with this program, as the programmers would be too, because the search methods used were not developed specifically to ferret out copyrighted material.
In fact, though, Google Hacks fits right in with the company's philosophy. Several years ago, when Google was starting its Google Print project now (http://books.google.com/), the company's General Counsel (as in lawyer) said he believed the company was on solid legal ground with the idea of digitizing books and making them available for free to those seeking information on the Web. "We're dedicated to helping the world find information, and there's too much information in books that cannot yet be found on-line. We think you should be able to search through every word of every book ever written, and come away with a list of relevant books to buy or find at your local library," the article says, and this under the threat of a lawsuit by the American Association of Publishers (http://tinyurl.com/9cqrn).
Legal questions aside, one thing you realize after checking out Google Hacks is just how powerful Google really is - and how central it is to Web life nowadays. If you have a couple of hours (that's how long it's going to take since there's so much to see), you really ought to check out the projects on the Google Code site. This is where the innovations of tomorrow's Google searches appear - today. Among the more exciting projects is one where you will be able to use Google's free office suite (word processor, spreadsheet etc.) off-line (http://gears.google.com/).
As far as I know, Google has no plans to charge for their applications anytime soon. So, once they successfully fend off the book, music and movie people, I guess Microsoft Office is next, as Google's Web suite becomes a desktop suite!
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